The Education of Helen Keller

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Helen Keller with her friend Mark Twain, c.1903

Helen Keller with her friend Mark Twain, c.1903

Helen Keller is arguably the most famous disabled person in history. Her extraordinary achievements despite losing both sight and hearing at the age of just 19 months have been the subject of numerous films and books. However, not everyone was convinced these achievements were genuine.

One such sceptic was Dr Martin W Barr, director of the School for the Feeble Minded in Elwyn, Pennsylvania, who in 1896 tried to verify what he had read in the press about the then sixteen year old Helen Keller. Replies he received from Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind, and the Cambridge School for Young Ladies are now available to read in the Wellcome Library as MS.8927.

All of the institutions he wrote to had previously been involved in teaching Helen Keller. The Perkins Institute in particular had played a key role. In 1886, the Keller family had contacted the director of the Institute, Michael Anagnos, on the advice of Alexander Graham Bell. At this point, six year old Helen had created more than sixty signs which enabled her to communicate with her family in a very limited way. However, she was unable to communicate with anyone outside her family apart from Martha Washington, the young daughter of the family cook.

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan, Cape Cod, July 1888

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan, Cape Cod, July 1888

Michael Anagnos sent his 20 year old partially sighted former pupil Anne Sullivan to live with the Keller family. Her work with Helen Keller is documented in the film The Miracle Worker, which famously depicts Anne’s breakthrough when she was able to get Helen to understand the sign for water by running water onto one palm whilst drawing the correct sign on her other hand with her finger. Anne Sullivan would remain with Helen Keller until her death in 1936, firstly as her teacher and later as a companion.

At the age of eight, Helen began her formal education at the Perkins Institute. In 1894 she and Anne moved to New York so she could study at the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf and the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. Two years later Helen and Anne moved again, this time to Cambridge Massachusetts where Helen was enrolled at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies. This was the first time she had been educated alongside seeing and hearing pupils. Still aged just sixteen, she took, and passed with flying colours, the entrance exams for Radcliffe College, the female annexe to Harvard University. It was at this point her fame began to spread.

Another item found within this extremely small archive is a partial transcript concerning these college entrance exams. The author, presumably someone from her school or one of the colleges, is at pains to point out that Keller did not receive any special treatment. The exams she took were the same as those taken by other potential college entrants. In fact, Helen Keller was put at a distinct disadvantage as she was not given any extra time to complete the exams. Whereas sighted pupils could read the questions and answer them immediately, Helen had to wait to have the questions read to her before she could provide her answers.

Diagram showing human hands on braille

Diagram showing human hands on braille

In just ten years Helen Keller went from being illiterate and only able to communicate with an extremely small circle of people to passing the entrance exams for an Ivy League college. This would be pretty impressive for someone with no sight and hearing impairments, so it is not surprising that some people were sceptical about her achievements. It is tempting to ask whether the same questions would have been asked had she not been both deaf and blind.

Even a cursory look at the life of Helen Keller shows that she was a remarkable person with an ability to achieve whatever she set her mind to, whether as an advocate for people with disabilities or a committed radical socialist. The fact that she was both deaf and blind when she achieved these things is just one small aspect of her story.

Natalie Walters

Natalie Walters is Archives Project Manager at the Wellcome Library. She specialises in the management and curation of born-digital records, and has a worrying knowledge of the history of poisoning.

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